September 28th, 2010
12:01 AM ET

My Take: Why American public schools need religion courses

Editor's Note: Stephen Prothero, a Boston University religion scholar and author of "God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World," is a regular CNN Belief Blog contributor.

By Stephen Prothero, Special to CNN

Who knows more about religion - the arch-atheist Christopher Hitchens or Islam basher Rev. Franklin Graham?  Most likely the unbeliever, according to a U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey released today by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.

In this, the first major study of religious literacy among American adults, Americans as a whole flunked, answering correctly 16 of 32 questions about Christianity, the Bible and the world’s religions - for an embarrassing score of only 50 percent.

Atheists and agnostics, however, got 21 right, better than both Jews and Mormons, who rounded out the top three groups of scorers. Although this result (67 percent right, or a D by my calculations) was nothing to write home about, it was 5 correct questions above the national average.

If nonbelievers were the thoroughbreds in this race for religious knowledge, Roman Catholics, with fewer than 15 right answers on average, were the mules. In results that will surely prove to be a thorn in the side of Catholic educators, fewer than half (42 percent) of the Catholics surveyed were able to name Genesis as the first book in the Bible. Ouch!

Still, the big story here will likely be that those who think religion is a con know more about it than those who think it is God's gift to humanity.

As the author of the 2007 book "Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know–and Doesn't" and as an adviser to this Pew study, I wasn’t surprised by these results. I do hope, however, that this dismal data will serve as a spur to action.

In "Religious Literacy," I described our collective religious ignorance as a civic problem of the first order. How to hold politicians who pin their public policies to the Bible without knowing something about that text?  And how to make sense of religious conflict in the Middle East without knowing something about Judaism, Christianity and Islam?

Believers and nonbelievers obviously disagree on the virtues and vices of religion. But all careful observers of the world should be able to agree on this: From time immemorial, and for better or for worse, human beings have been motivated to act politically, economically and militarily by their gods, scriptures and priests. Without making sense of those motivations, we cannot make sense of the world.

It is time to address our national epidemic of religious illiteracy. I have called in the past for mandatory public school courses on the Bible and the world's religions to remedy this problem. The time for such courses is now.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Stephen Prothero.

- CNN Belief Blog contributor

Filed under: Atheism • Belief • Bible • Catholic Church • Christianity • Culture & Science • Education • Islam • Judaism • Middle East • Opinion

soundoff (546 Responses)
  1. News

    @Peace to All
    (Sept. 25) - Former U.S. Air Force officers and a former enlisted man are about to break many years of silence about an alarming series of UFO encounters at nuclear weapons sites - incidents officially kept secret for decades.

    When the group appears at a press conference at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., on Monday, it will offer testimony about events so chilling, it will seem like a day at a science fiction movie festival.

    Google: Former Air Force Officers : Ufo's Tampered with Nuclear Missles

    I have tried posting the link twice, but it does not stick

    September 28, 2010 at 8:52 pm |
    • Muneef

      The Quran told us that creations are Three:
      -Angels they have no power of Choice.
      -Jennies they have a power of choice.
      -Humans they have a power of choice.
      So this UFO stuff is just another game threat to milk the union cow with. Peace

      September 28, 2010 at 10:16 pm |
    • peace2all


      Sept.. 25th already came and went.... So, next Monday Oct. 4th...?

      Otherwise, I already saw the news conference etc... Unless this is something different....?

      Always curious about how interesting we humans can be....


      September 29, 2010 at 1:44 am |
  2. JUst Another Atheist


    I have no problem with religion if taught along with other myths – kind of like "Those silly scandanavians believed in Thor, and after a few hundred years of enlightenment, a zillion others believed in JC and Moh – what were they thinking?" The instance someone suggests (in a public school) that religion is fact, is when I 'phone the lawyers.

    You mean like when Madeline Murray O'Hare had prayer taken out of school?? Prayer wasn't hurtin that Ba*tch, but she had to stir and take it from those of us who wanted it.
    Watch out, America is sick and tired of bleeding heart liberals, socialism, our religous rights being hijacked by athiest and dum Democrotches who can't run this country right.
    Our freddom of speech is being p*ssed with because of people who are "offended" and so on.
    The scales will be balanced soon!!!

    September 28, 2010 at 8:47 pm |
    • HotAirAce

      Please take a chill pill...

      It is *wrong* to make anyone pray to some god. It is *wrong* to pay public school teachers to lead prayers. It is *wrong* to set up a system were one child gets ostracized because their beliefs (probably actually their parents and the child's only because of birth) are different.

      Time for right wingnuts to start respecting the law and people.

      September 28, 2010 at 11:27 pm |
    • David Johnson

      Madeline Murray O'Hare was a saint. She was worth 10 of Mother Teresa. 5 or 6 of the Virgin Mary.

      O'Hare did the believers a solid! Prayer does not work. We don't want our children believing in things that don't work.


      September 29, 2010 at 9:07 am |
  3. JUst Another Atheist

    David Johnson

    Just say no to drugs and religion. Religion is the opiate of the masses!

    Make your school a religion free zone!

    JUST another Atheist tring to do what he (and the rest of them) claims he hates done to him...having Christianity forced down his throat!
    See the Hypocrisy?

    But he wants all our kids to SIGN OFF on religion! Just because he don't believe, and thinks the rest of the world should do and believe as he does!
    What a Crock !!

    September 28, 2010 at 8:37 pm |
    • David Johnson

      @JUst Another Atheist

      You said, "JUST another Atheist tring to do what he (and the rest of them) claims he hates done to him...having Christianity forced down his throat!
      See the Hypocrisy?"

      I also don't want Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny taught in school. School is for truth. The children should be assured they are learning the best possible facts available. By even mentioning religion in school, it adds a sense of legitimacy to it.

      There is no evidence for there being a god. God should not be allowed in a holy place of education. A fine should be placed upon anyone proselytizing in the religion free school zone.

      I take your Jesus by the ear and toss him from the schools! I chase him through the temple of truth in my iron chariot!

      September 29, 2010 at 8:59 am |
  4. News

    David Johnson

    I think we may be missing the possibility that these UFOs, are really god's angels and maybe even the holy mother herself

    Do you watch the news idiot?
    These are top military men. The meeting is on Monday, when alot of what the public has not been told about Extraterrestials and ufo's will come out for the first time ever.

    September 28, 2010 at 8:26 pm |
    • peace2all


      Which 'meeting' is on Monday......... You have my attention. I am very, very curious to hear what these top military men have to say.

      Is it different from the news piece that came out ....yesterday or the day before...?


      September 28, 2010 at 8:30 pm |
  5. Not Funny

    Good try David Johnson!

    "OOPSIE" gave you away!!

    September 28, 2010 at 8:23 pm |
    • David Johnson

      That is not me dude. I always post under my own name. Believe it or not.

      September 28, 2010 at 10:19 pm |
  6. TeaPartyGal

    OOPSIE I meant to say NOVEMBER!!

    September 28, 2010 at 8:22 pm |
    • peace2all


      It's o.k... we forgive you... You were just thinking about the baby jesus and his birthday in December....right...? 🙂


      September 28, 2010 at 8:27 pm |
  7. TeaPartyGal

    Vote Republican in December/ Jesus is God and He is Alive and Well

    Lets Take Back Our Country...God Bless America!

    September 28, 2010 at 8:18 pm |
    • David Johnson

      I hope you are wrong about taking back the country. If the Christian Right gains political power, through their Republican puppets, we will have a theocracy. Jesus will be the head of state. No one will be able to hear Jesus except the Christian Right. They will tell us the will of god.

      September 29, 2010 at 8:47 am |
  8. chuckmartel

    Prothero, your stupidity never ceases to amaze. The last thing this nation of idiots needs is more religion. Try more science you obscenely stupid moron. I have never had any use for religion but I still got all the religious quiz questions in adjacent link right. Not because of religious training but because of solid education and decent history background. Apparently the religious crowd does not do as well as the secular crowd on these religion questions. So what is your point?
    After 8 years of the bible banging smirking chimp administration, you would think the masses of USA would have had enough stinking religion. Now the PC commentators, politicians, and generally people who are not republican/biblebangers are gushing about faith, people of faith and importing religious zealots who brag about praying 5 times a day or more. Now some PC idiot talking heads from MSN al quizera (?) want retard Bush to make speeches about the peace beauty and love of islam. Insane and stupid. Since when are PC libtards so gaga over religious fundamentalists. This country has deevolved into a high tech middle age type society and idiots like this Prothero are taking us to dark age status and will probably kick off WW III.

    September 28, 2010 at 7:36 pm |
    • David Johnson

      I agree with you, but I have to comment on one thing you said:

      "This country has deevolved into a high tech middle age type society and idiots like this Prothero are taking us to dark age status and will probably kick off WW III."

      If we follow the line, where science is evil and only a theocracy will do, we will not be a high tech society. We will be subservient to China and the rest of the world. The Religious Right, once they have placed Jesus as head of state, will hear His voice and will tell the rest of us His will.

      Vote for the Dems in November. Jesus/god does not exist.

      September 28, 2010 at 8:02 pm |
    • chuckmartel

      Good point. I think we are still high tech yet middle age mentality. In my opinion, your point applies to the dark age future that probably awaits due to "people of faith". The middle age stuff really hit home when I saw idiot blumberg with a bunch of clownish dressed up religous imbeciles at a press event about "faith mosque, faith free blah speech (free speech islam, right), faith blep blep, etc" . The press event was on the mosque stuff in NYC.

      September 28, 2010 at 8:33 pm |
  9. Muneef

    Accept to see this with all love and respect;

    Listen with your Ears,Read with your Eyes,Think with your Mind,Judge with your Heart find Truth for the Love of God. When you make one step towards God ,God makes ten towards you, you walk towards him,he comes running to you and that is Love of God is to connect with God through worship,behavior,prayers,praises,glorifies those clean heart deep from darkness of any satanic obsession,scruple,misgiving.

    They say some day some one will come to take you so very faraway and love will show the way..


    September 28, 2010 at 7:18 pm |
  10. TheRationale

    The best way to get rid of religion is to educate people about it.

    September 28, 2010 at 6:20 pm |
    • David Johnson

      Ummm... People are really selective on what they "learn". As a Christian fundie, I can see all the bad in your religion. I can see how it is just made up. My religion is not like that. My snake talks.

      September 29, 2010 at 8:40 am |
  11. News

    Former Air Force Officers: UFOs Tampered With Nuclear Missiles
    Google it..It will not accept the link

    September 28, 2010 at 6:20 pm |
  12. News

    The top secret U.S., German and Russian files from 1917 to 1990 that I saw, and stole certain copies of, clearly show UFO evidence going back 13,000 years, and completely destroys all established religious bases, and most of societies ideals and that is one reason the government can not release those records and files to the public.

    September 28, 2010 at 6:17 pm |
    • David Johnson

      I think we may be missing the possibility that these UFOs, are really god's angels and maybe even the holy mother herself.

      September 28, 2010 at 7:54 pm |
  13. ohyeah

    Guys lets educate about Islamic threat here.


    September 28, 2010 at 6:08 pm |
  14. peter

    i think we should properly teach science classes before we worry about religon.

    September 28, 2010 at 5:38 pm |
    • Petel2

      I agree. Though when we do teach kids about religion, we should teach it as the delusion it really is.

      September 28, 2010 at 6:07 pm |
    • David Johnson

      Amen, and add math to the to do list. We shouldn't spend any precious resources on a myth.

      September 29, 2010 at 8:37 am |
  15. KM

    So what am I supposed to believe???
    I know……. I’ll believe what I was taught in school……

    That Haeckel's Embryonic chart was a fact (since proven as one of the greatest evolutionary frauds)

    And Viet Nam was a Police action.

    September 28, 2010 at 5:01 pm |
    • NL

      You were also taught that pi is closer to 3.14 than just 3 as the bible states, and that the sun is a star that the earth revolves around, not something that revolves around the earth, again like what the bible teaches.

      September 28, 2010 at 5:39 pm |
  16. Mark from Middle River

    I would worry more about what version or denomination of any of the versions of Faith that they would consider expressing. I have seen drop down fights between my fellow Christians over what is and what is not a Christian. And we are in the same denomination. I understand how religion has factored into many events in history but that is the differance between teaching about slavery in the US to a class on black philosophy or concepts.

    September 28, 2010 at 4:43 pm |
  17. Selfish Gene

    You give them an inch, they WILL take a mile. Look at what happened in Dover PA.

    This could be a Junior/Senior class only. Math and Science FIRST.

    September 28, 2010 at 4:17 pm |
    • David Johnson

      You noted that the ultra conservative, Bush appointed judge totally ruled against them right?

      Intelligent Design is just dressed up creationism.

      Even the Discovery Inst itute refused to testify under oath.

      It was a total humiliation for the school board of Dover.

      September 28, 2010 at 7:47 pm |
  18. Doc Vestibule

    If American schools are unwilling to entertain the notion of a comparative religion course, at least the topic merits a chapter or two in psychology textbooks. It is important that people ask themselves basic questions about their mindsets, like why most seem to have a need for the comfort of faith.
    So many seem unwilling to accept the fact that had they been born into a different environment, their perception of 'T'ruth would be vastly different.
    Had we been born Aztec, cannibalism would be a joyous rite for both meal and diners! Early indoctrination canalizes us all with certain taboos – some of which may never be overcome. That shouldn't prevent us from recognizing the source of these taboos and that another society's beliefs are no less real and valid than our own.

    September 28, 2010 at 4:09 pm |
    • David Johnson

      The funny part about environment being a huge factor in what we believe and worship is lost on believers. I have never had even one believer admit that they just might be Muslim if they lived in Iran. One believer even went so far as to say Jesus would have reached him even in Iran.

      Good post though. Good point. Cheers!

      September 28, 2010 at 7:43 pm |
    • HotAirAce

      A module on "Why does man create, discard and cling to myths, from Zeus to JC/God?" would be fascinating!

      September 28, 2010 at 11:40 pm |
  19. JPopNC

    and this "quiz" is a complete farce. All it proves is that the majority of athiest are jack of all trades, but master of none. Know just enough to be dangerous, especially to people's eternal souls.

    Islam may very well target the athiest first, because they would be the greatest threat to their religion. Hmmm.......

    September 28, 2010 at 3:22 pm |
    • NL

      We atheists generally are jacks of all kinds of knowledge, but usually we are masters of religions and sometimes other fields as well. Many are leading authorities in their field. Sorry, but no fundamentalist ever succeeded in signing atheists off as being ill-educated. In fact, we're usually criticized for being too intelligent for our own good. Indeed we do know enough to conclude that people do not have eternal souls. Sorry, but you were taught that. It's an idea, and not a fact.

      Atheism isn't some external enemy to Islam, or any other faith. Most of us were raised in a faith. What leads to atheism is the natural realization that faith alone is not a good enough reason to believe in anything. There is not a single place outside of religion where faith alone is relied upon to define truth. In fact, we go to great pains to teach our children to look for evidence before accepting something as true. To not place emotion ahead of reason in making a decision. That, if something sounds too good to be true, it probably isn't true. Well, my friend, God sounds too good to be true, doesn't he?

      September 28, 2010 at 4:54 pm |
    • peace2all


      Just responding to what you said about this 'quiz'.... "All it proves is that Atheist's are Jack's of all trades, but master's of none."

      Quite the contrary...... See, if you would have actually truly thought it through and understood the data. It very clearly stated that not only did the atheist's and agnostics score the highest, but... the actual 'believer's of any particular faith or faith's scored much lower. Dismal showing by people who are supposedly educated in things that are of faith/belief.

      Yes, we are often branded as know-it-alls. Also, no morality, etc...etc...

      But your generalizations just don't hold water in the face of *facts* concerning this issue being discussed.


      September 28, 2010 at 6:17 pm |
    • NL

      Good point! The experts of any religion should be among the faithful, but they aren't always.

      September 28, 2010 at 6:37 pm |
    • David Johnson

      WoW dude! Spoken like a guy who's score was in the dumpster.

      So, you are obviously a scholar. You shake the devils from me, even over the net. Why not give me some proof that there is a god? Any god.

      Also Your Jesus said he would be back (2nd coming) in the 1st century. He is late. Probably 'cause he is dead, as my daughter would say.

      September 28, 2010 at 7:40 pm |
  20. David Johnson

    Let's think about something: All children are born atheist. The parents almost immediately start "training" the child to believe in the parent's god. You could adopt a newborn from Iran and with a little effort, would be a Christian. Same is true of a newborn adopted from the U.S. and taken to anywhere. A little effort and you would have a little Muslim/Hindu/Buddhist.

    Don't you find it odd that there is no "Christian seed" or "Muslim seed"? A child growing up in a rain forest won't be a Christian or Muslim or Hindu or Buddhist, without some influence from their parents or their environment. A rain forest child will worship a tree, if his parents tell him to. The tribe reinforces this belief.

    Isn't it odd that god has not included a seed, a kernel, of faith in Him?

    It's almost as if all the gods are made up... Mom and Dad and Society determine the one true god.

    September 28, 2010 at 2:57 pm |
    • JPopNC

      David Johnson: all children are born into sin, but everyone has a concept of God no matter where they are. Even a child growing up in the "rain forest" see there is a Creator of some kind, that's why you see varieties of religions. They see a need for God, the same way you see a need for God. You're filling that void by critcizing those who believe in order to justify not having God in your life.

      See, I once believed solely based on faith, which was good until I went to college and they tried to brainwash me away from God. But over time I realized that void again, but this time I've dug deeply into Scripture to understand God even better and can now stand saying the Bible is infallible, that God is real, and that Jesus Christ is our Savior.

      I can also tell you what the world tells you is the lie. If you want to uncover some real untruth, just dig further into what you hear from the media. You'll see where the media, government lie to us everyday.

      September 28, 2010 at 3:31 pm |
    • David Johnson

      You said, "all children are born into sin, but everyone has a concept of God no matter where they are. Even a child growing up in the "rain forest" see there is a Creator of some kind, that's why you see varieties of religions. They see a need for God, the same way you see a need for God. You're filling that void by critcizing those who believe in order to justify not having God in your life."

      You are right, that man likes to invent gods. You missed the point, that man is not partial to any one true god.

      If there is one true god, he has not given man the "itch" that only a belief in him can scratch.

      A belief in many gods and there have been hundreds if not thousands over the history of man tend to show that all gods are just made up. They were created by man to calm their fears about death and explain the unknown.

      You said, "I've dug deeply into Scripture to understand God even better and can now stand saying the Bible is infallible, that God is real, and that Jesus Christ is our Savior."

      The bible contains errors. It is not infallible. It is obviously not the inspired word of god. Biblical authors believed the earth was flat and circular. For the record, it is not. God/Jesus should not have let that get by.

      You have no proof your god exists. Cheers!

      September 28, 2010 at 7:34 pm |
    • peace2all


      In your response to @David Johnson

      As soon as you said....."All children are born into (sin)..." Pretty much everything you stated after that has, in my humble opinion, is called into question.

      When you immediately start using religious dogma to debate... You will lose a lot of credibility, at least from those of us who are looking for sound and well-reasoned arguments.


      September 28, 2010 at 7:58 pm |
    • HotAirAce


      Let me be more clear than peace2all – what f***ing nonsense!! What kind of a loving god starts the most innocent out as being born into sin? The answer is none – only religious charlatans looking to maintain power could come with such crap!!

      September 28, 2010 at 11:37 pm |
    • peace2all


      LOL..! 🙂


      September 29, 2010 at 1:37 am |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.